The bright yellow F-250 that annihilated my ‘92 LeBaron was owned by one of the largest construction companies in the country. Initially, they tried to stiff me entirely, and then tried to offer the “book value” of the car, $1500. I’d put about $5500 into that car in the course of putting 75,000 miles on it, and I demanded the full $5500. Their negotiator laughed and said he’d throw it to their lawyers and it’d be months before I saw any money at all. I’d run a thorough background check on him at work. I told him where he lived and where his ex-wife lived. I told him where his son went to school and complimented him on the kid’s ability as a football player. I said I’d be delighted to put him feet first through a woodchipper. I mentioned a rather notorious Serbian gangster in NYC. Within about two weeks, they gave me a check for $3700.
Luckily, Tom let me use his little Hyundai until I could get another car. I took possession of the apartment at Sunset Meadows, and Daisy arrived from Kansas with Scooter and Buster and all our stuff. I soared past my quota and deeply into bonus territory at Academy. They threw a costume party for Halloween. I went as a demon. Management seemed unsettled by my choice of costume.
Daisy hit the ground running, checking out the schools and trying to find a teaching position. Popular opinion had it that there was a severe shortage of schoolteachers in Vegas. That may be true, but it surely couldn’t help that the average wage offer was a measly $10 an hour. The average starting wage for a bill collector was $12, plus commissions and bonuses. A society that values its bill collectors more than its schoolteachers is doomed. Daisy’s mood began to tank badly. The cats hated the apartment, quite understandably: it only had two windows, and all they could see from those windows was the lousy traffic, frequently punctuated by collisions.
You’d think that buying a used car in Vegas would be a knock, what with all the obsessed gamblers around losing the kids’ college fund and the house. You’d be wrong. The used car market there was flooded with Katrina cars and plain junk, all at extravagantly inflated prices. I had the $3700, which should’ve been enough. I found a glorious blood-red 1974 Cadillac with a cream-colored landau roof, but the bastard wouldn’t give me financing for the lousy $1700 difference to make the $5400 he was asking for it. I settled for a 1996 civilian model Crown Victoria from J.D. Byrider. All the cabs I drove in NYC were Crown Vics, and I wanted something familiar, something built like a tank.
The traffic in Vegas is the worst I’ve ever experienced, anywhere, and besides being a former NYC cab driver, I’ve driven across the USA six times, so I know whereof I speak. I could get from my apartment to Academy in about 10 minutes on the 215 beltway, but the 215 is a white-knuckled high-speed demolition derby of drunken blind kamikazes guaranteed to induce homicidal road rage in even the most Zen-like driver. The surface streets took about twice as long, and even there, the traffic is the very worst. Most residential streets in Vegas are six lanes wide. When it looks like a freeway, people tend to drive it like a freeway. Additionally, one of the local cops had informed me that at any given moment, at any given intersection, one out of four drivers is legally DUI. Every casino in town is giving away booze, 24/7. It’s a drunkard’s paradise. Every day the news was filled with automotive carnage, and it wasn’t in any way abstract, it was right in your face anytime you drove anywhere.
My pot connection was nuts, and not in a good way. He was a fellow collector at Academy; I’ll call him “Carl Winston.” He was on probation for a serious DUI. He’d inherited a boatload of money from his parents, who’d owned a small chain of grocery stores. He blew it all in one year by purchasing a fully-loaded Corvette and embarking upon a coke-fueled whoring odyssey until he wrapped it all up by totaling the Corvette in an incident he refused to describe, but which clearly involved injuries and death to persons other than himself. I rode with him once, just once, right after my LeBaron got destroyed. He went straight to a convenience store near work, bought a 24-ounce can of Bud, opened it, and rested it in the cup holder of his Jeep Cherokee, taking hits off of it periodically as he drove. He had no insurance. He clearly wanted to die in a car.
Every time Daisy and I went over to his place to score, he’d regale us with the same story of a frustrating night at the Green Door, a sex club just off the Strip on the street that marked the border between Las Vegas proper and North Las Vegas, the ghetto. Two black women had allowed him to masturbate in front of them, and the incident so impressed him that he found it necessary to repeat it every single time we visited. This recurring narrative was always followed by him playing the same videotape of a forgettable stand-up comic. His refrigerator never had anything in it but beer and some half-eaten fast food. The weed was passable, just this side of mediocre, but better than nothing.
Our downstairs neighbor was a wannabe biker without a motorcycle from San Jose, California who couldn’t hold a job for more than a week or two. He drank all the time and had a fixation on David Icke, the English guy who maintains that the elite ruling families perched atop the oligarchy that rules most of this planet are actually shape-shifting lizards from outer space. He started coming on to Daisy in an unpleasant way, and ignored her demands to knock it off. Carl came over one night and he and I treated Dennis to an improvisational performance loosely based on Dennis Hopper and Dean Stockwell in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. He never so much as glanced at Daisy again, and moved out very shortly thereafter.
The corruption at Academy was becoming more and more evident to me. Violations of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act weren’t merely routine: they were expected. The two top collectors, whose pay stubs I’d seen when I was hired, were absolutely the worst offenders. One of them had been “fired” and immediately rehired something like six times in the last 18 months. I overheard her telling a debtor whose child’s long and failed struggle against cancer had plunged the household into a black hole of debt that, “Your daughter is probably spinning in her grave knowing that you are a deadbeat.” A collector who sat next to me took a fatal overdose of prescription drugs. Fistfights were breaking out in the room towards the end of December.
Daisy took a job at the art gallery in the Bellagio and decided to study for a real estate broker’s license. The job paid just $10 an hour, but the environment was sufficiently serene and beautiful to compensate, at first. There was no Waldorf School in Vegas. She’d spent about five minutes working at the local Montessori pre-school, located on a dusty patch across the street from a huge cell tower array, but the place was run by a fat dictatorial lesbian from Mexico who wanted a lot more for her $10 an hour than anybody should give. Teachers are not janitors. She also kept watch online for any appropriate openings in Waldorf education, anywhere.
We amused ourselves by getting high and rolling down to Fremont St., the cheaper and funkier alternative to the Strip. We’d go in and play the slots and drink for free, always leaving if we scored. We actually came out quite a bit ahead with that strategy. We had fun there. The free booze helped a lot.
Sunset Meadows turned out to be far worse than merely sketchy. Evidence of rampant evictions was everywhere: huge piles of new furnishings and children’s toys clogged the dumpsters. There were stray cats, friendly and desperate for attention, obviously domestic. The clear inference to be drawn was sudden evictions. The pool was filthy and perpetually closed. The exercise room smelled like moldy jock straps. The manager, a bleached blonde Nevada white trash bitch resembling the famous drag queen Divine and bearing the unlikely name of Tanya Suzuki, had an imperious “What the fuck do you want?” attitude approximately the size of Montana and a fondness for Spandex garments entirely inappropriate to her girth. The other residents we talked to spoke in whispers about the random evictions, all firmly convinced that the place was going condo and we’d all be thrown out on our asses.
I had a fat enough bonus and commission package socked up in December’s recoveries that if I was going to make a move, this was the time to do it. I’d be flush as a church in January. I’d about had it with both Bank of America and Academy Collection Services. I was sick of being treated like some kind of freak because of my adamantine commitment to adherence to the FDCPA and my openly weird quasi-Satanoid decor in my little cubicle. We were all freaks in there, and I was definitely among the more benign. B of A is a shit golem of a bank, a contender for the absolute worst in serious competition with Citibank, Chase, and Wells Fargo. I banked with Bank of the West; they don’t ass-rape their checking customers.
The final straw came for me just after New Year’s, 2006. I’d exceeded my quota for December by over 25 percent, putting me into serious money. I tried to get an afternoon off to deal with some DMV crap regarding the Crown Vic, it was beginning of the month, I hit my numbers, ought to be easy, right? No go. No slack at all. Okay, fine. I went to my desk and the first new account I hit up was an old black construction worker from Bumfuck, Pennsylvania. B of A had worked the account for six months in-house before it hit me. I read the notes. This guy had opened the Visa I was collecting on in 1982, worked for the same construction company the whole time, lived in the same house, married to the same woman, never missed a payment nor was he ever late with one until after the heart attack he had following his wife’s death from cancer.
When he defaulted on the Visa, he owed a little over $1200. Six months later, with B of A’s unquestionably usurious fees and penalties applied, the debt arrived on my desk at $3817.42. I was seething at this absurdity as I called the one working contact number, his place of employment. His boss picked up. I went through the usual protocol of verifying employment, and this old guy with a serious redneck twang to his dialect went totally nuclear on me.
“You lousy fuckin’ collection agency motherfuckers are harassin’ this good man every goddamned day. This hard workin’ black man has endured shit that would break your soft money-countin’ ass. You call back here or harass him in any way, shape, or form and I will track your ass down and shove a shotgun up your ass, are we clear on that?”
“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “I quit.”
I hung up and did just that. No brakes. Never touch the brakes in a skid. Steer into it. No brakes.
We never fully unpacked. We knew we’d move again. The cats were so bored with their lousy view that they took to opening closets, cabinets, and drawers and strewing the contents around. Daisy came home from work one day to find Buster trapped inside an inverted laundry basket, Scooter grinning and cleaning his paws as he sat on top. Daisy’s work schedule was in constant flux, hours changing from week to week, impossible to predict. She got a line on a kindergarten teaching position at a school in Los Altos, California, and began pursuing that. I went to work for a business-to-business collection agency just east of the Strip on Sahara, down by the Liberace Museum. I swore I’d never work consumer collections again. It’s too personal, too brutal, and it brings out the worst aspects of my character. I desperately needed some light in my life.
I was getting fucked by J.D. Byrider on the financing for the Crown Vic. It’s what they do, they’re infamous for it. The book value of the car was just under $3000. Their price on the lot was twice that, and with the finance charges, I’d be paying just under $10,000 for it by the time it was paid off. The upside of this ghastly arrangement was that the predatory banks that back their predatory loans started kicking me credit cards. I paid everything on time, keeping everything current. Nobody hates the banks like a bill collector, but I love their credit cards. Over the years since I first got into collections back in the 1980s, I’ve reaped close to a quarter of a million dollars by stiffing banks on credit cards. As the old Woody Guthrie song goes, “Some men rob you with a six-gun, some men with a fountain pen…”
We’d seen Cirque du Soleil’s KA shortly after arriving, courtesy of a friend of mine on the crew. It’s a spectacular show, the most original thing from Cirque since the genius Franco Dragone left them at the end of the 1990s. It was also quite clearly the most dangerous production I’d ever seen outside of Survival Research Laboratories back in the 80s. It has this enormous gantry crane as a stage. This thing rises, pivots, tilts, and otherwise performs mechanical stunts thoroughly incompatible with the fragility of the human bodies performing on it. It seemed inevitable to me that this gadget was going to kill or maim somebody.
I got word that Cirque was unveiling a new show on the Strip called LOVE, essentially a tribute to the Beatles. George Martin was remixing and mashing the original masters, refreshing and renewing the familiar material in a distinctly contemporary way. I persuaded High Times to get me into the premiere so I could review this show. Not recognizing my name, the publicity folks at Cirque additionally offered me tickets to any of the other shows they had running on the Strip. We’d seen KA. Neither one of us wanted to see Zumanity, Cirque’s celebration of sexuality. Their other shows are sexy enough, what with all the nearly-naked bodies under duress on display. Putting sexuality front and center could only result in some atrociously twee limp-dicked burlesque that we’d be embarrassed to be seen attending. We opted for O, Franco Dragone’s masterpiece, and Mystere, their first Vegas installation, also a Dragone creation.
Daisy had just about burned out on the politics and the scheduling of her gallery job when she got a call from the Waldorf School of the Peninsula, in Los Altos. They wanted to interview her for the kindergarten position. She was thrilled. So was I. I was sick of collections and ready to quit the business entirely, despite the money. My first boss and mentor at the circus, a wise Cajun fellow named David LeBlanc, once told me, “It’s not what you do, or even what you make: it’s who you’re with.” I’ve never really been motivated by money, finding those kind of people about as boring as cokeheads or junkies. I wanted to be with people driven by their imaginations.
I got the tickets and a press kit from Cirque du Soleil: in the space of one week, we were going to attend the premiere of LOVE at the Mirage, followed by front-row seats to Mystere at Treasure Island, finishing with front-row seats to see O at the Bellagio. Daisy returned from California with a job and an apartment. She was thrilled and renewed, cleansed of the morbid funk of despair that had engulfed her under the neon lights of Vegas. We called the same mover, Bobby Jones of Lawrence, and made ready to push West yet again.
I began to take a more relaxed attitude towards work. This did not go unnoticed. My supervisor, Justin, called me into his office one day towards the end of June. “You’re my top collector, Al,” he said. “You generate urgency better than anybody else in that room. I’m not getting that from you lately. What’s up? Trouble at home?”
“Anything but,” I replied. “Things are going better than they’ve gone all year. Maybe I’m just feeling relaxed.”
“We don’t need you relaxed, Al. We need the Master Of Ass-Clenching Fear, the Sith Lord, Darth Repo. Create some tension for me out there. We need your numbers, it’s been a slow month.”
The premiere of LOVE was June 30. I’d blazed past my quota into serious bonus territory and had a pile of loot coming. I also had three shiny new credit cards from Providian, Capital One, and HSBC. Against all rules and ethical principles, I ran a full background check and credit report on Tanya Suzuki. I walked into Justin’s office and quit that afternoon, as soon as the numbers were tallied. Daisy had quit her job at the gallery that morning. We dressed up and went out to enjoy the show. Me being “press” and all, we were treated like royalty at all three shows. O just might be the most gorgeous live spectacle I’ve ever seen. It’s stunning, like a beautiful dream. Franco Dragone was the real creative genius behind Cirque du Soleil, and O was his magnum opus.
When the cats saw us packing, they went wild with glee. They knew they were finally getting out of this dark cave of an apartment. We timed the move so that we loaded out the apartment on a Sunday, when the management office was closed. I left a copy of Tanya’s credit report and background check in an envelope with a pithy little note indicating that any damage to either of our credit reports would be met with full retaliation. The movers headed out on Sunday night, and we followed at dawn the next morning with the cats, headed to Mountain View, the heart of Silicon Valley.
It was inevitable, I thought: I’ve always been drawn by the Call of the West, by dreams of California. Daisy was glowing, and I felt like Huck Finn, lighting out for the territories. The future was wide open.